Tess Torelli April 10, 2018

The top federal ethics watchdog says embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s actions related to his rent, travel and expenses “raise concerns” and may violate official standards of conduct.

The United States Office of Government Ethics’ acting director also told the EPA in a letter that it should take “appropriate action” if Pruitt’s conduct is found to have breached ethics rules.

The letter sent Friday and made public Monday laid out what has become a litany of controversies surrounding Pruitt, whose hold on his job as EPA administrator has become tenuous. The EPA had no immediate comment.

President Donald Trump on Saturday posted a tweet in support of Pruitt. But Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, reportedly has called on the president to fire Pruitt.

It was revealed recently that Pruitt last year rented a room in Washington for just $50 per night from Vicki Hart, wife of lobbyist Steven Hart, whose clients were seeking action from the EPA. The agency’s ethics official, Kevin Minoli, last week said that his initial determination that the rental deal did not violate federal rules was based on incomplete facts about that arrangement.

Last Thursday, The New York Times reported that “at least five EPA officials,” most of whom were high ranking, “were reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs in the past year after they raised concerns about the spending and management of” Pruitt. Those concerns, according to the Times story, included Pruitt’s big spending on furniture for his office and his travel.

And on Friday, The Associated Press reported that the EPA has spent millions of dollars for a 20-member security detail for Pruitt that has guarded him on trips which included a family visit to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl college football game.

The EPA has said that Pruitt’s large security detail, which dwarfs that of his predecessors, is necessary because of an “unprecedented” number of death threats. The agency had cited those threats as a justification for Pruitt flying first class, a controversial practice he has since abandoned.

David Apol, acting director and general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, in his letter to Minoli said the reported actions of Pruitt “raise concerns and may constitute a violation of the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

Apol wrote that “our understanding” is that Pruitt “apparently did not seek ethics advice prior to entering into the lease” with Vicki Hart on the question of whether the lease’s terms “were so favorable as to be a gift from the lobbyist.”

“Only after the existence of the lease was reported in the press did he provide EPA ethics advisors with limited information about the lease,” Apol wrote. “He then received, based on the incomplete information he provided, an after-the-fact opinion that the lease did not constitute a gift.”

“Additional information has now come to light that calls into question whether the earlier determination that the Administrator paid market value for the use he made of the apartment would still be valid,” Apol wrote.

The ethics official wrote that while “appropriate use of scarce government resources is beyond the purview of OGE,” reports about Pruitt making frequent official trips to his home state of Oklahoma “to offset the expense of returning home for personal and political reasons” raise concerns about whether he is using his office “for personal gain in violation of ethics rules.”

“Finally, there are extremely concerning reports that the Administrator has reassigned or demoted staff who were attempting to ensure that the expenses and other actions were in accordance with laws and regulations,” Apol wrote.

“If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity.”

Apol said OGE “expects that the EPA will review and analyze the alleged conduct.”

He noted that the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is already reviewing requests to probe at least some of the issues.

“If a violation is found, OGE expects that appropriate action will be taken in response,” Apol wrote.

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